Comprehensive Literature Search: Social Sciences

Librarian for Sociology, Environmental Sociology, MHS and Public Policy Studies

Profile Photo
Pam Morgan


What is a Literature Review?

Before you begin searching for sources for your literature review, it is helpful to know what a literature review is so that you include all the necessary sources.  A literature review is a systematic examination of the scholarly literature about one's topic.  It critically analyzes, evaluates, and synthesizes research findings, theories, and practices by scholars and researchers that are related to an area of focus.  In reviewing the literature, the write should present a comprehensive, critical and accurate understanding tof the current state of knowledge, compare different research studies and theories, reveal gaps in current literature, and indicate what is already known about the topic of choice (p. 2  Efron, Sara Efrat, and Ruth Ravid. Writing the Literature Review : A Practical Guide, Guilford Publications, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central,


Tertiary Sources: Annual Reviews, Subject Bibliographies & More

There might already an existing bibliography or literature review to give you a head start.The following sources can be good places to check . 

Selecting Sources to Search

A good literature review should be as comprehensive as necessary to identify all of the major works and debates on your research subject.  


Subject-specific Databases - search in databases specific to your discipline of study to find more sources in your field. For example, Sociological Abstracts specializes in Sociology and will have more coverage of the sociology literature than an interdisciplinary, all-purpose database such as ProQuest.  You should also search in more than one place (i.e. multiple databases and the library search) since no one search tool covers everything.  For example, if your topic involves education, consider also searching an education database, such as Education Fulltext.

Here are ideas about finding places to search.




Databases A-Z - Once you've identified disciplines or information types, consult the Databases A-Z list by subject.  A Research Guide for a specific subject may also have some suggestions.

Library Search Tool - The Library Search Tool also searches a variety of databases for books and journal articles at once. However, it does not search everything, so be sure to also look at disciplinary databases.

Google Scholar -  also search for your topic in Google Scholar.  If you have a relevant source, consider searching the title in Google Scholar and using the “Cited By” link and the “Related Articles” to locate more literature.  See also Bibliography Mining and Cited Reference Searching

WorldCat -  If your discipline publishes its scholarship in books, the WorldCat database is a place to look.

Citation Tracing (Backward and Forward)

Citation Tracing Backward (Bibliography Mining) - use the list of works cited from a relevant source to learn more about a topic from the works cited or to see if important works are missing.  This is a way to look for relevant sources published prior to the one in hand.  A database may have a direct link to all the works cited, such as the example below; otherwise, you may need to look at each work cited manually. The database Web of Science has links to references, as do ProQuest databases.

Citation Tracing Forward (Cited Reference Searching)  -This finds newer sources that cite a particular article, book chapter, etc.  It also uncovers newer research on a topic.


Google Scholar allows one to trace a citation forward but not backwards.


Beyond Vanderbilt

Beyond Vanderbilt - if you find a citation for a source Vanderbilt doesn't own, use Document Delivery/Interlibrary Loan (ILL)  to get it. Articles and chapters can usually be scanned and sent electronically, but books must be mailed and typically arrive in 1-2 weeks, so plan ahead. TIP: If you see FindIt@VU, follow the links and sign in to have the form automatically filled out for you.